Conditioning for Endurance Riding – Part II
While physical conditioning requires a comprehensive and patient approach, mental conditioning is even more complex and individualized. I do believe this piece of the pie is often overlooked, but mental conditioning is as equally important as physical conditioning.
Mental conditioning is a difficult subject because… you all may get tired of me repeating myself… again, every horse is different. Every horse needs a different approach to reach mental soundness; therefore, the rider/handler needs to be able to listen, listen, listen and then be able to decipher and discern what is going on mentally.
Just like physical conditioning for endurance, I am assuming your horse has had all of his basic training, respects you and your space, understands leg aids, etc.
Mental conditioning comes in steps just like initial training, so I will break this down into Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.
Part I – mental conditioning for the “new” horse:
The reference “new” horse in this context simply means new to trail or endurance irrelevant to age. First and foremost, your horse should be able to ride alone and with others. Hmmm… this is training right? This is pre-school and the fundamentals of mental conditioning. If your horse does not respect or listen to what you are telling him to do on trail, he is not ready for physical conditioning as he is still in basic training.
Be an active rider. This is one of the most important rules. By active, I mean tell your horse what to do down to every little detail initially. The horse cannot read your mind. Tell your horse when to trot, when to walk, when to stop, when to back-up and again when to stop. When I am first training a horse on trail, I take a no-tolerance approach; the horse is not allowed to do ANYTHING unless I tell him to. For this reason, I also do not sing or talk unless I am telling the horse to do something. This way, my horse understands that when he hears my voice, I am giving a command (both verbally and physically) and he is to listen; otherwise, it is mindless talk and he will learn that my talking doesn’t mean anything. This does not imply that I am mean or harsh or that the horse cannot “ask” to change gaits or whatever. Timing is everything with training and a rider should be able to feel the horse about to change gaits so that you can tell them to remain at a walk or trot or whatever it is until you give the command to change. Also try not to just follow trail; take your horse around a bush or tree and then back onto trail, etc.
Being active also does not mean that you should constantly be telling your horse what to do, command after command, as that ends up being counterproductive. Let your horse process your command and praise him for doing the right thing. Active riding does mean that you are telling your horse to do something rather than correcting. Try not to always say no; try to tell before you have to correct.
Part 2 – mental conditioning for group riding:
Ok, so your horse goes down trail and listens to you and fully knows all your commands, etc. Now you are out riding with your friends and there is another set of problems. Your horse insists on being in front. The other side of this coin is the horse that lets everyone pass them wants to duck behind someone else.
For the horse that insists on being in front, these guys take quite a bit of schooling. In fact, even the horse that travels down the trail calmly behind their buddy also needs proper training in backing off from their buddy and letting them go. At the endurance rides, you are going to need to be able to control the situations when other horses pass yours or you simply want to go slower than the horse in front of you. But you need to feel comfortable, confident and able to handle this as a rider. This training needs to be done at home well before introducing your horse to an endurance ride. The best way to train for this is to provoke the tantrum. Let your friend go ahead of you and then begin to pull your horse back, letting the horse in front continue on and eventually losing sight of them. Again, only do this if you are comfortable and confident you can control your horse because he is likely to get real toddler-like in a hurry. If you are not comfortable doing this or are not confident you are can control your horse, do not take this on as you could get seriously hurt and leave it to your trainer to tackle. If your horse begins to bounce around or pull through the bit, start doing some patterns with him and be stern about your directions, turning him in circles, figure-eights, backing up, going forward, stopping; make him work. And then attempt to continue on down trail. If he continues to be a toddler, turn him around and go the opposite direction; this is the exact direction he does not want to go. He wants to go catch his buddy, not go the opposite direction. Do some more patterns and try to go down the trail again. Once he is responding and listening within reason and you catch back up to your buddy, DO NOT STOP BEHIND HIM – PASS HIM AND KEEP GOING. This is a very, very important step. Your horse’s goal was to catch his buddy – you must tell him to keep going. This is called rating your horse. Your horse is learning to go the speed and direction you are telling him. It may take days, weeks, months, but he will get it and you will be much happier in the end. These toddler moments may show up again in the first one, two, three or so endurance rides too, but you will have better success if you start this training at home.
A horse that is not controllable is a danger to all and it is not fair for a rider to expect others to suffer your risk taking.
On that flip side of the coin is the horse that wants to duck behind someone else and not be in the front. This is just a confidence issue. Make them go in front. Take your time, be patient. Let them take in all the sights and sounds. Continue to tell your horse what to do. Try to feel the spook before it happens so you can actively tell your horse to do something rather than reacting after the fact/spook. When your horse tries to do a 180 turn because the rock, for instance, is horse-eating, turn them back into the direction they are turning from rather than going in a full circle. For instance, your scary object is on the left and your horse wants to do a 180 to the right; using leg aids, seat, rein as well as voice, turn your horse to the left and keep his/her body to the left rather than letting your horse go to the right and continue through the right. This is an active correction.
Part 3 – mental conditioning for endurance training:
Another mental problem riders may run into is the horse that starts out not spooking and then begins to become spookier and spookier. This is usually a sign that you are asking too much too soon. Try not to make every riding day a total workout. Learn to trail ride. Have you ever noticed how some horses spook on the trail they are used to and have been on 12 million times, but at the endurance rides they are more focused and don’t spook as much? I believe they spook at home because they are concentrating on their immediate surroundings rather than focusing on what is ahead and going forward. This can be a lazy tactic. I can’t say I blame them. They get bored with the same trail just as we do. They also get sore if we ask too much too soon; or, the horse himself bites off more activity than his body can chew. Either way, they start to anticipate the workout and/or the discomfort. Try to do some trail riding, where you just go out and walk, maybe trot a little, but mostly walk for a couple of hours. Take in the scenario, smell the flowers kind of ride. Let them graze and just enjoy the day. And, try to change up the scenery if you can and go to different places or ride the trail backwards, etc. Put this type of riding into your schedule once in a while, as often as your horse needs it. It often works to achieve or regain your horse’s mental clarity.
Horses that are boarded sometimes develop a mental block when they only see their owners when it is time to ride. You pull up to the barn, your horse knows the sound of your truck and heads for the hills. He knows that when he sees you, he is going to work. I know life is busy and if you are like me, you cram your schedule full right down to every minute, BUT try to spend some time going out and just giving him carrots or apples, a nice grooming or something, just no saddle and no work. You will see a sparkle in his eyes rather than a curled up nose.
Your horse can be your friend, your partner, and your confidante. Respect what your horse does for you and their needs and your horse will respect you as his/her leader and give you every bit of their potential and sometimes more.